The Edessa File

Susanne takes a picture near Abraham's Pool
Susanne takes a photo in Urfa
Sunday, September 5.

Susanne and I slept until 9am, and probably would have slept much later if Özcan hadn't telephoned us. Özcan was just getting ready to depart with Ali, Maggie and Michael, but he wanted to let us know that our overnight bus tickets were waiting for us downstairs at the front desk. As expected, the tickets had cost six million lira apiece -- about $14.

"You should be at the bus station by 8pm," Özcan suggested before saying goodbye. "You would not want to miss your bus."

We had breakfast that morning at one of the local pastane restaurants that lined an alley just across the street from the hotel. Susanne ordered several small pastries a la carte while I had the fixed-price Turkish breakfast. The goat cheese was a little dry but the bread was fresh and the generous serving of honey was poured from a giant jar of honeycomb along the window sill. We planned our day while we ate, agreeing that we would spend as much time as possible relaxing by Abraham's Pool, perhaps getting some journal writing done as well. Apart from that, we kept our day completely open. But first we needed to get Susanne a headscarf.

Though Turkey is generally quite moderate as far as Islamic societies go, Urfa is very conservative, as could be seen in the number of women wearing chadors around town. Susanne said she had felt a little out of place when touring the pilgrimage sites yesterday -- even though she was fully covered in trousers and a long-sleeved shirt, her conspicuous blonde hair made her a target for occasionally long stares. I hadn't noticed the staring myself, but Susanne certainly had, so I agreed we should start our day by getting her a proper head scarf.

We walked south to the covered market, hoping to find the vast array of shopping opportunities as we had observed the day before. To our surprise, though, much of the market was deserted. Friday may be the sabbath for Muslims, but Sunday was the official holiday for shop owners, apparently. Several shops were conducting inventory but were closed to customers. Eventually we found a wholesale textile shop where a young man was stocking the shelves with thick piles of scarves.

"Good morning, how are you?" he said to us in English.

"Good morning," I replied. "Nasilsiniz?"

"Fine, thank you very much," the teenager answered.

Susanne and I thumbed through a collection of large silk scarves, most of which were very colorful. She soon found a beautiful, dark green scarf with a black geometric pattern.

"What do you think?" she asked, trying it on around her head.

"I think it's great," I replied. "It goes really well with your hair and the color of your skirt."

"Let's put it aside and keep looking, just in case," she suggested.

We continued to look through the piles of scarves, but none seemed as nice as the green one. "Green is very nice," the young man said.

"Yesil, degil mi?" I asked him in reference to the color, pointing to the scarf.

"Yes, yesil is green," he replied. He then pointed to a red scarf. "Do you know this color in Turkish?"

"Kizil?" I said, venturing a guess.

"Not exactly -- kizil is reddish, a rusty color," he replied. "Kirmizi."

"That's right, kirmizi," I responded. "Someone told me that a few days ago."

I continued my color lesson as Susanne tried on several scarves. Black? Kara. White? Beyaz. Blue? Mavi. Yellow? Sari. Eventually Susanne settled on the dark green scarf, which I purchased for 500,000 lira -- just over one dollar. As we walked away from the shop, the young man again pointed to a red scarf. "Do you remember the answer?" he said, smiling.

"Kirmizi!" I called out to him.

old man
Man sitting outside Abraham's Pool
Susanne and I continued our walk to Abraham's pool and spent about an hour strolling around, taking pictures of people and the scenery. It was a great day to photograph kids, as many families were visiting the pool. While Susanne wandered around on her own I found a perch along the far end of the pool and watched a group of children receive plates of fishfood pellets from their parents, then throw the pellets into the water. The kids would laugh and clap every time the carp jostled the water as they ate the food. To my chagrin, though, an annoying carpet seller kept approaching me, asking if I would help him practice his English while walking to his shop.

"My English will get better if we spend the day together," he insisted.

"I am sure it would," I replied, "but please understand that I am busy."

"Do you not like carpets?" he continued, unable to take no for an answer.

"Please go away," I said, exasperated by his badgering.

The young man eventually left, but I soon observed him swooping down on a pair of German tourists. Susanne, too, was now being pestered by the same suave carpet seller that had given Özcan such a hard time yesterday.

"We must meet friends at the çayhane," I said as I arrived at the scene.

"I will go then," the carpet seller said, taking the hint.

Susanne in a headscarf at a teagarden
Susanne relaxes at an Urfa teagarden
Though we no longer had friends with whom we could meet for tea, Susanne and I nonetheless walked through the gardens to one the outdoor teahouses. We sat at a table near a stream, drinking bottles of Fanta and people-watching in the shade. A large Iranian family sat at the table next to us, drinking copious amounts of tea while their children played hide-and-seek along a row of trees by the stream. We enjoyed the relaxing atmosphere until lunchtime, at which point we briefly retreated to the four-star Edessa Hotel for a light lunch of cacik and fresh bread.

By 1pm we were ready to revisit the market, just in case activity there had begun to pick up. While the covered market was still rather quiet, a thriving produce market was in full swing just outside the bazaar. The square was crowded by vendors selling fruits and vegetables from large horsecarts. Other vendors had their produce stacked on plastic tarps along a shady wall. The setting was just begging to be photographed, but Susanne and I both worried that people here might not appreciate us getting in their faces with our cameras.

"We'll just have to be inconspicuous," I joked, knowing well that we stuck out like sore thumbs.

Urfa market scene
The hustle and bustle of Urfa's outdoor vegetable market

We walked around the market, cameras in hand, squeezing through the crowds in hopes of finding a few worthy shots. Susanne soon pointed to a pair of men selling enormous watermelons from a flat-bed truck. The watermelons were stacked so high and wide that they could have probably killed someone in an avalanche of fresh fruit. The two men were deep in conversation as I approached them to plan my shot. Before I could even lift my camera they spotted me -- the game was up. To my surprise, they both put up their hands and smiled.

"Fotograf! Fotograf, lütfen!" they yelled towards us.

Susanne and I got a little closer to them as a crowd formed nearby. One of the men proudly lifted up a watermelon and posed with it as we took a picture of them. "Tesekkür ederiz," I said, thanking them.

two men and their watermelons

"Now you!" one of them shouted in English. Another man approached from the crowd and offered to take a picture for us. The watermelon men then handed Susanne and me our own watermelons and situated us in front of their stand. As I smiled for the picture I imagined that watermelon avalanche enveloping us from behind.

"You send fotograf, okay?" one of the two men asked us.

"Of course!" Susanne replied.

I pulled out my notebook and handed him a pen. As the man wrote out his address for us, several groups of young vegetable sellers huddled together and waved at us. "Fotograf?" they asked in unison.

Susanne and I looked at each other and shrugged. A moment ago we had been nervous about getting pictures here in the market, but now we were the center of attention, pretty much able to photograph anyone we wanted. Susanne and I each walked around the market, coordinating groups of smiling young men in front of their produce stands and taking their pictures. Almost every time I got ready to snap the picture another teenager would jump into frame and pose with his friends.

two Urfa boys boy, Urfa market

Urfa boys

Urfa boy boy, Urfa market

Once all the young men had been photographed, I explained to them I would send them copies via the watermelon man's address. One of the young men thanked us by giving me a plastic comb. Another one offered us fresh sprigs of mint.

After parting from our new friends, we returned to Abraham's Pool, pausing along the way to purchase two Kahramanmaras ice cream cones from a street vendor. Once again we settled ourselves at an outdoor çayhane just west of Abraham's Cave. The tea garden was crowded with Turkish visitors drinking tea, including many young women sporting bluejeans and t-shirts. These women were in stark contrast to the women strolling along the pool, many of whom were covered in head scarves or full-length chadors. As we sat over our journals, sipping our tea and Fanta, Susanne noticed several young women pointing at her, undoubtedly because she was a westerner in a head scarf.

"I can't seem to win here," Susanne sighed. "People first stare at me because I'm not wearing a scarf, and now they stare at me because I am."

"It's a different crowd," I replied. "These people are probably tourists from Istanbul, not locals. Don't worry about it."

Writing in our journals served as an excellent distraction from the occasional gawker. Despite Susanne's occasional discomfort, I felt quiet relaxed, sitting amongst the shady trees and drinking endless cups of tea.

girls feed fish at Abraham's Pool
Young girls feed the carp at Abraham's Pool
The afternoon passed by very quickly, for soon it was 4pm. After paying our bill we visited Abraham's Pool one last time. Yet again the persistent young carpet seller was there, this time pestering an American college student -- the first American we had seen in Urfa, actually. The American soon caught sight of us and introduced himself, hoping to get away from the carpet seller. He explained he had been teaching English in Istanbul for a year and was spending a couple of weeks traveling around Turkey.

"Are you having fun in Istanbul?" Susanne asked him.

"Absolutely," he replied. "I'm planning to re-enlist in the program for another year, actually. There's something really special about this place."

Just before 4:30pm we departed Abraham's pool, returning to the neighborhood by the Hotel Güven in order to find a cafe to kill our remaining hours in Urfa. Two blocks from the hotel we found the Kilim Pastanesi, a delightful pastry shop decorated with Turkish and Kurdish kilims along the walls. We almost had the place to ourselves, apart from a pair of old men drinking tea with the cafe owner. We ordered apple tea and a selection of Turkish pastries, including two pieces of baklava and a similar dessert made of shredded wheat, shaped like a bird's nest. The baklava was a syrupy delight, a perfect blend of flaky philo dough, pistachios, honey and a hint of rosewater. I lingered over each bite as if it would be the last sweet thing I would ever taste. The kind owner of the pastane must have noticed how much we enjoyed his pastries, for he offered us two free glasses of black tea to go with our last slice of baklava. The heavenly desserts, we hoped, would tie us over through the next morning, since neither of us wanted to take our chances with the local kebaps. As we finished off our last forkful, I wondered if all of the red meat that Michael and Maggie had eaten here in Urfa would give them problems later. We'd probably never know.

At 7:30pm we picked up our bags at the hotel and began walking west along Fuar Caddesi towards the otogar. I had guessed that the walk would take us no more than 20 minutes. About five minutes into our walk there were no more street lights, so I became concerned that we might get lost. A thin man in his thirties offered to help us find our way, but he had a severe speech impediment and I had a difficult time understanding his directions. Susanne and I must have looked completely lost at this point, for a dolmus driver pulled over and asked if we needed any help.

"Otogar nerede?" I asked the driver.

"I will give you a ride," he replied in English. "Please come."

Given the fact that dolmuses are shared taxis, I was fully prepared to pay him for the ride. After driving for five minutes, he pulled over to the side of the road and pointed around the corner.

"Otogar," he said.

"Tesekkür ederim," I replied as we climbed out of the minibus. I pulled out several million lira and was prepared to offer him the fare, but the driver closed the door, waved goodbye, and drove away without accepting any money. The man was probably on his way home for the night and just wanted to give us a lift.

Despite being dropped off near the otogar, we still couldn't see it from our present position. Once again, I wasn't sure exactly where to go next. Before I could admit this to Susanne, two young men appeared from around the corner and asked us if we were going to the otogar.

"Come with us," one of them said in English. "We will go there." For the third time in 10 minutes, someone was going out of their way to help us. They didn't speak English very well, but during our brief walk I was able to discover that they were named Adnan and Abdullah. When we reached the otogar, they pointed us to the proper bus line and then turned around, heading back to the road where they had met us.

"They weren't even going to the bus station," Susanne said, surprised as I was.

"I guess not," I replied. "Just another example of Turkish hospitality."

Once inside the Best Van bus line office, we waited for our bus until 8:30pm, watching the local news on the office television. We were then escorted by a Best Van representative to the bus, which had just pulled into the otogar, far on the other side of the parking lot. The bus was already crowded with people from a previous stop, so there was no room for us to stow our backpacks above our seats. Storing our bags in the bus' interior compartment, we settled into our seats for the nine-hour ride to Van.

Susanne and I both took a couple of Tylenol PMs to help us sleep on the bus, but they were of no use for me. The Best Van bus was about as comfortable as any Greyhound bus I've ever been on, but I just couldn't get any sleep. Susanne managed to catch some Z's while I used my anorak as a pillow, hoping that I wouldn't be up the entire night.

Just after midnight we reached Diyarbakir, the great walled city along the Tigris. If it weren't for the Kurdish insurrection we probably would have included Diyarbakir on our itinerary, but the pro's just didn't outweigh the con's. It was risky enough for us to be visiting Van; anything but a bus refueling stop in Diyarbakir just wasn't worth it.

When we arrived in Diyarbakir our bus was searched by two jendarma commandos, both of whom were dressed in camouflage and were armed with automatic rifles. One of the jendarma scrutinized every page of our passports, staring at me coldly as he returned them to me.

"Where you from?" he asked us matter-of-factly.

"USA," I replied. "Biz Amerikaliyiz, Memur Bey."

The jendarmalar eventually left the bus and let us continue on our journey. Within an hour of leaving Diyarbakir, though, the bus made an unscheduled stop. I was a little groggy at the time -- perhaps I had fallen asleep briefly. Our bus was now parked in a large lot, and I could see soldiers, jeeps and military transports outside the window. I assumed we were making another checkpoint stop, but the minutes soon turned into hours. Our bus, it seemed, would be spending the night somewhere east of Diyarbakir. I can't say I was totally surprised, though. Way back in Istanbul, Aydin had warned us that buses weren't allowed to travel at night in the area between Diyarbakir and Van -- terrorist attacks and banditry were a real possibility there. But Özcan had assured us in Urfa that the security situation was improving, and overnight buses had resumed their routes. Perhaps it was standard operating procedure for buses to be stopped for hours at a time. Perhaps something unusual was going on during this particular night. Either way, the Turkish jendarmalar were not going to let us out of this parking lot until they were good and ready.

It was only several weeks later when I had returned to the USA that I learned what had happened east of Diyarbakir that night. According to several newswire reports I read on the Internet, a Turkish platoon had attacked retreating PKK guerrilla forces that very evening in the mountains between Diyarbakir and Van -- just about the time we were passing through the area. Around three dozen Turkish soldiers and Kurdish rebel fighters were killed in the raid. I can only surmise that the Turkish military spotted our bus and pulled us over for our own safety until the operation was complete.

I knew none of this at the time, of course. It was 4:30am, and I was on a Turkish bus in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by armed commandos. All I wanted to do was catch some sleep. We were now in the heart of Kurdistan, and I would need all the rest I could get.

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